We are in a brick house that survived Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Twenty volunteers cheerily rush out to the site of a home to clear rubble so the homeowners will avoid fines. The long time volunteers, such as Sandra, stay behind.
Interview: How to Become a Natural Disaster Volunteer
My name is Saundra Grayes. I’ve been working with Common Ground now for eleven months. It’ll be a year next month on the 18th. I started off cooking and cleaning up grounds. I was working in the same area across the bridge in the Upper 9th. And they closed that down so I moved down here to cook. I’m one of the site coordinators also. Anybody have any problems they talk to me about it. Or if they need anything, they find me.
How’d you find your way into Common Ground?
Really, I’m a Katrina evacuee. The house I was living in, this lady just up and sold my house. So I had to find somewhere to go. I could go volunteer with Common Ground. At first it wasn’t me. Then it began, and I seen where they needed help. They really needed people, and the things that they were doing for people was good. So I’m still here.
I told them I would stay with them until January. Give them enough time to find somebody that’s dedicated and responsible like me. I’m not going to leave them stranded just like that. But I got to go back to California.
Are you getting paid?
No. Volunteer. Right now it’s just volunteer work. Everything from actual living to cigarettes to any habits that you have, they finance. You do what you do to get it. They help you out as much as they can. If they feel that you’re a hard worker, they don’t mind buying you cigarettes. So it’s okay. Anything I ask for I get it (laughs).
When I started off, it was a group that was cooking. They ended up leaving. Before they left, other people came in. I was only doing two days a week because I was doing site coordinating and cleaning up areas. I was living at the Catholic school. The school is Pre-K to 8th grade. It hasn’t been renovated yet. It’s not a heated building. It’s really get it how you live. Camp out, but you’re not camping out because it’s a building.
But there were some cooks there that didn’t care about the food. They’d just throw some stuff together and you’d put it in your mouth and you’d be like, ‘What the hell?’ You’d be like, I know what this is, but it don’t taste like it should taste.
So I used to sit next to Tom and be like, ‘Tom. I cook too good to be eating like this.’ Everybody ending up dropping out of cooking and went home. They got tired and burnt out. I just took it on full until September. Then I got help. I was working from June to now in October. I’m out feeding everyone.
I love what I do right now. If you get in an organization that’s comfortable, you’ll be alright. You got people with different attitudes. You got some that will show you that they don’t really care. They’re just there. And you got some that is really caring about they doing. Those are the groups you want to go into. Not the ones where they’re trying to get out of the work.
Since I been here, I met some really nice people that came through. Most of them, they came through and done what they said. They come to help, and they help. Some came and you can’t get them out the bed. They can’t make the 8 o’clock meeting. They don’t wash the dish that they eat out of. But that’s everywhere.
If you go into this, make sure you’re financially stable. Make sure you’ll be able to get a stipend. Some places give you stipends to manage it. It’s a good thing. If that’s what you want to do, it’s just good.
I look at it like this. People that’s from New Orleans that have homes here, we started gutting the houses. When they started gutting the houses because people got evacuated and they had no means of getting back. They dropped ‘em in Texas or wherever and they still had homes here. Most of the ones are either retirees and they living on they retirement. But they got to pay rent where they at. How they going to pay the bills? They still got to pay the same much rent, the same much mortgage as they had before the storm. And live where they living at. So that’s kind of hard. And they want them to clean up they yards and cut the grasses and all that. So Common Ground is started where they cutting the grass for ‘em. So they can keep their property and someone won’t snatch it. Because of some of the people who come through are collection people. Insurance people. If the grass is overgrown, then you abandoned your property. They trying to do everything there is to just, hurt.
The organizations here, most of them trying to do whatever they can to help. So people can save their property so people can afford to send landscapers out to cut their lawns or do whatever. We’ll do it the first time. But to keep it up, give us a little donation cuz it’s a non profit organization.
You don’t think that there are people out there who are just helping because they want to.
Like I say, I’m just a cook. I’m the head cook here. Everyone like my cooking. I can cook anything you ask me to cook. I made a crawfish, egg shrimp and feed last night. Over pork roast and some rice. I made it optional. If you didn’t want to put it over your pork, you put it over your rice. Or you can put it on both of it. And everything with the greens, cuz I love the greens. I fed over maybe 10,000 meals a week at St. Mary’s. I can’t count how many I’ve done since I’ve been here in eleven months.
Maybe 300-400 by myself making it from scratch. I enjoy cooking. They came here to help the people in New Orleans. I was living here on and off for six years. I was here during Katrina. I was in the Superdome. I understand what was going on and all that. I appreciate them coming to help. But they gotta eat! The stuff I started eating when I first came here I wouldn’t want anybody to eat that (laughs).
Do you think you want to be a cook or chef or anything like that?
Matter fact, I had two weeks to graduate before Katrina hit. But I didn’t go back to school. I just left it off. Like I tell ya, I can cook anything you ask me to cook. From scratch.
I was cooking. They needed the help. Like I said. There’s a lot of good people. They just trying to help too.
I said, ‘I’m staying.’ I got mad at the people telling me to leave. I told ‘em, ‘I ain’t going with you. I’m staying right here. Y’all go.’ Then I turned on the news and that anchor had tears in her eyes. I changed my mind. Quick. I started hurrying and packing up (laughs).